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Scene in Berlin

January 25, 2013

There's nothing unusual about being thrifty in January. But if Berlin's service industries are to be believed, there's also nothing unusual about the proverbial belt staying tightly buckled for the rest of the year.

A server in a restaurant balances three plates
Image: Fotolia/MNStudio

"Ten-percent tips are illusionary in this city," a waiter at my local café told me recently. "If you want that kind of money, you have to get a job in Munich or Hamburg."

The conversation started when I was waiting for a coffee "to-go," as they say around here, the price of which I noticed had gone up from 2.80 to 3.00 euros (about $4.00).

I always used to round up to three anyway, but since the new price removed the scope to do so, I wasn't sure how much to give. I could have gone up to four - although a euro tip seemed like a lot for a takeout drink - or I could do the Berlin thing and tack a small and random amount onto the price, thereby creating a wholly unrounded sum.

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Dilemmas, dilemmas… To solve this one, I asked the waiter whether, in his experience, it was customary for people to tip him for an over-the-counter drink. "Not in Berlin, it's not," was the first bar of his reply. "But I do," he added hastily. "I tip everyone, even in a kebab shop. It's good karma."

Unclear rules

That being the case, the findings of my research into the issue would suggest that Berliners don't care much for karmic retribution. The waiter, it turns out, is by no means the only one who thinks Berliners are a tight-fisted bunch. A supermarket delivery man told me his wages amount to a pittance, in part because his employer works on the basis that he will be given tips on top.

"We get an average of about two euros an hour before tips," he told me. Two euros! That is not only well below the national average, and one excellent reason for a mandatory minimum wage, but displays great audacity on the part of the supermarket, which stings customers with a delivery fee of between five and six euros. And because of that charge, many shoppers think they have already paid a tip, or at least have already paid enough.

Can they be blamed for thinking that? After all, postmen and parcel delivery services don't get tipped. I have that from the horse's mouth. There was a time as recently as 10 years ago, one postman told me, when a few coppers were commonly handed out by means of thanking the postie for climbing the stairs, packages in hand. "These days we're lucky if we get 50 cents a week," he said.

In the age of Amazon and Internet shopping, that hardly seems right. But tipping is a funny game, with its own set of rules that seem to be country-, and in the case of Germany, city-specific. So what is it about Berlin that is so synonymous with tight-fistedness?

Berlin is for artists, not tippers

This is not only a city that was declared broke many years ago, it is also a place where café customers regularly order just tap water and, more importantly, where there has long been an inverted snobbery about wealth. Money doesn't talk here in the same way it might in Munich, Hamburg and Frankfurt. Money doesn't talk here in the way that a lack thereof does.

Coins and a restaurant bill on a small plate
In Germany, it's common to round up the billImage: karuka/Fotolia

This is not a city of bankers, of leading car manufacturers, and it is not a city of merchants. This, so we are told, is a city of artists. And artists and money… well, you know how that story goes.

That is not to say there is no money in Berlin. There is. And conversely much of it these days appears to be concentrated in the over-gentrified district of Prenzlauerberg, which is probably also one of the most café-dense areas in the city. Perhaps tipping trends will be upended right there, or perhaps the willing tippers will learn to toe the local line.

And on some level that might even be a good thing. I remember many years ago, when I lived in Bavaria, that a friend of mine lost his wallet. Not long after, a young man appeared at his door clutching the missing object and offering it back for a tip of 10 percent of whatever was inside.

Here in Berlin, it is a different story, and I know that because one member of my family is very good at losing his wallet. It has been found by many people in many parts of the city, and has always been returned without so much as a mention of a finder's fee.